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Aug
09

Paul Fernhout on Abundance

We’re asking each of the participants in The World Transformed to give us their thoughts on one major coming transformation. Here arwe Paul Fernhout’s thoughts on coming to grips with the technologies of abundance.

If you were to pick just one current or coming transformation that you would advise people to focus on, which one would that be?

Albert Einstein said “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” We now have all sorts of other amazingly powerful technologies increasingly at our fingertip, including, ironically, digital watches with probably more computing power than was used to design the first hydrogen bombs. We need to move past the irony of using the tools of abundance to create weapons to compete over perceived scarcity, given such technologies could otherwise relieve almost any scarcity if used in different ways. So, I’d advise people to focus on the way our thinking will transform, specifically in relation to changes in underlying socioeconomic values related to decreasing fears about scarcity and increasing hopes for abundance.

What should we be doing about it?

We should be trying to move past a mostly scarcity-oriented socioeconomic system to a more abundance-oriented one. For example, the late James P. Hogan depicted such a transformation in his 1982 sci-fi novel, Voyage From Yesteryear. That story, along with his other books, has inspired and informed much of my own work in this area.

Scarcity-oriented political and economic values left over from a previous millennium have led to the irony of people misusing our 21st century tools of abundance (nanotech, biotech, nuclear-tech, robotics, AI, networking, bureaucracy, etc.) Through cultural inertia, people are still worried about resource scarcity, but they now have vast resources of abundance with which to refight the last millenium’s wars. This is like two thirsty people trying to drown each other in a Great Lake they’ve just discovered because they are afraid there is not enough water to go around. So, people build nuclear missiles to fight over oil fields instead of just building power plants with space-age materials (nuclear or renewable). Or people make genetically-engineered plagues for ethnic conflicts over farmland instead of using biotech to grow enough food for all ethnicities. Or people create military robots to force people to work like factory robots in a scarcity-based social order rather than just build factory robots to do the work. Or people create sociopathic financial AIs to help them corner the market and become financially obese instead of creating compassionate AIs and asking them how to move beyond a society based around greed and a fear of poverty.

To move past those ironies, we can do several things. Perhaps most important is that we should invest in free software tools for semantic communications (like a social semantic desktop), for public intelligence sensemaking and analysis of complex issues, and for agent-based alternative economic models to explore new 21st century possibilities. Out of groups of people using those better tools can come educational materials about post-scarcity trends, including through more stories, poems, videos, movies, songs, artworks, novels, plays, ideas, and theories. Those materials would help more people to make a “global mindshift” to an abundance-oriented compassionate viewpoint.

But, often actions speak louder than words. So, there are many actions we can take as individuals, companies, and governments to create the physical surroundings that encourage people to think differently. Each suggestion has its own benefit, but the biggest value overall is changing our collective thinking by encouraging people to see a different world is possible, even when they can’t otherwise imagine it until it is staring them in the face. So, we should invest in improving the physical tools of local subsistence like self-replicating 3D printers that can print solar panels, organic gardening robots, and recycling machines, while also encouraging stronger local communities with more face-to-face get-togethers. We should strengthen the global gift economy by making it easy to move unwanted surplus goods around through a global public logistics network. We should move beyond “artificial scarcity” as a moral evil, by shortening or eliminating copyright, by limiting or eliminating patents, and by requiring all charitably-funded or tax-funded digital content be put under free licenses (even if just 1% of the work’s funding is subsidized from charitable or tax dollars). We should institute a basic income of US$2000 per month per person everywhere (social security and medicare for all, regardless of age); that change could let us turn our public schools into expanded public libraries with lots of hands-on skills training, with everyone having the ability to pay for self-chosen life-long learning opportunities including travel and volunteering. We should improve our democratic resource-based planning at all levels of governance and corporations including by using the internet for easier participation. We should supply everyone who wants one with a luxurious, safe, self-driving, electric car to reduce our tax costs related to health, pollution, war, and wasted time, while alleviating difficulties leveling the load on the electrical grid due to fluctuating renewable energy production. We should help people reach the low-hanging fruit of holistic medicine through eating more vegetables & fruits & beans, getting adequate vitamin D, fasting when appropriate, and redesigning our communities to be less stressful and more health promoting, so they can live to see advanced medicine. We should redistribute old Android cellphones loaded with free communications software to people in materially poor nations, along with small solar panels to charge them, to foster a two-way dialog with more industrialized countries, in part so the best of the old pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural values can help inform the new transformations. We should rethink our theory and practice of motivation to foster purpose, mastery, and self-direction in workplaces.  We should shift the trillion-dollar-a-year US military budget away from war fighting and towards developing a robust sustainable intrinsically-secure infrastructure for everyone on Earth and beyond, including by creating self-replicating space habitats that can duplicate and repair themselves from sunlight and materials from the Moon, the asteroid, and the Oort cloud.

What’s in it for us if we get it right?

The direction we come out of any singularity may have a lot to do with the direction we go into it. It just makes sense that, if anything can make a difference at all, the best way to go into a singularity is holding hands together as much as possible. See the Mystery Men “group hug” scene near the end for some inspiration, or read Alfie Kohn’s books on moving beyond competition and Morton Deutsch’s work on conflict resolution and mutual security.
It also seems like with the momentum of society and technology, we can’t go back, and we can’t stand still, even if some good things may be lost in a transformation. So we need to figure out a good way to go forward as best we can. If we make our world today more equitable, just, joyful, healthy, spiritual, compassionate, and intrinsically/mutually secure, with a strong sense of global community, then we are much more likely to come out of that singularity with abundance and health for all. That might mean we create a solar system full of trillions of super sexy long-lived billionaires (as far as access to resources) with what today would seem magical super powers. What comes after that is somebody else’s problem. :-)

What are the risks if we don’t?

One of the first things President Obama did after taking his oath of office was to sign an order that led to military robots killing (allegedly) three children in Pakistan, along with suspected militants.  US military drones have now passed over a million hours in use.  Yet, why is the Middle East still of such strategic importance to the USA if a leading maker of nuclear power equipment and fossil fuel burning turbines, General Electric, is predicting PV solar power may be cheaper than nuclear power and fossil fuels by 2015?   If we go into any singularity with people fighting each other due to scarcity fears, unexamined beliefs, and obsolete military and economic dogmas (ones focusing on unilateral extrinsic security instead of mutual intrinsic security, or ones that privatize gains while socializing costs), especially if they are fighting by creating competitive sociopathic AIs and robots for economic and military purposes, it is likely anything coming out of any singularity will not have much healthy humanity left in it. If a pre-singularity USA already kills children with robots, what will some post-singularity sociopathic AI do, or even just a highly rational amoral AI that judges us by our own ethical standards? So, if we do not change our way of thinking given our new powers, and also change our actions based on those new thoughts, it is likely our world, including both our physical children and our mind children, will be destroyed either accidentally or on purpose. Since technology is an amplifier, we have to be careful what it amplifies. We have to ask ourselves, what do we want to transform into, even over the next decade? It is true that global social, political, and economic problems will get easier to solve as our technological capacity improves. But, if we wait until then to try to solve those problems, it may be too late, as our direction into the singularity may already be set in a bad way. So, it essential to try to solve issues of social justice now, with the technology at hand, in order to decrease the chance of an apocalyptic disaster and increase the chance we create an abundant future for all.

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